I was dreading making the call, hoping for a last-minute miracle, a gesture of good will. Finally on Friday, after a planeload of pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Miami had taken off for the Cuban capital, I gathered the courage to call my 30-something cousin in Havana.
“Prima, I’m so sad, I’m sorry. I have been denied entry,” I explained to cousin Gladys. It was a tough conversation, made tougher because of the engine noise from her husband’s little motor bike that he was steering with her in the back, heading to their younger son’s school for an event.
“Ay, Prima, I was so hoping that you would meet our two sons,” she said on her cell phone with the roar of traffic overwhelming our choked-up conversation.
When President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry talk about a new day for U.S.-Cuba relations, of the two arch-enemies now being “good neighbors” after 56 years, most Americans think it’s about time. Heck, we have relations with communist China and Vietnam, where we lost 58,307 U.S. soldiers. Americans have moved on. So why not visit that exotic island of Cuba with those 1950s American Chevys, Buicks and even Cadillacs, take a ride on the wild side, shoot some photos, dance a cha-cha-cha, drink a mojito, chomp on a Cohiba?
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No sense explaining the “why not.” There may be very good reasons to work on a relationship that builds peace and helps Cubans build the civil society they deserve. But for those of us who hold Cuba in our hearts, it is more bitter than sweet this “neighborly” new era, because we only see real change coming from the U.S. side — more business ventures, more American dollars larding an economy controlled by the same Cuban leaders who have reigned supreme since 1959.
When I applied to go to Havana for the papal visit, I did so with a new sense of purpose. So there’s a new relationship. OK, let’s see how genuine the Cuban government really is in proclaiming a new era.
Both my sons, now grown men, were altar servers when they were growing up in Orlando and often assisted mass with Bishop Thomas Wenski. They want to meet their cousins, and my non-Cuban husband was eager, too, to join me after Pope Francis’ visit for a few more days in the Cuban capital to make those connections with my extended family. I filled out all the forms, reiterated that I was not going as a journalist but as a Cuban-American Catholic who wanted to witness a historic moment and reconnect with cousins I haven’t seen in 13 years. It was 2002 when I first met Gladys, pregnant with her first son, and I was on a journalism assignment that had taken me to Havana, Santiago and the Villa Clara area.
This was going to be a personal trip. And it would help me gauge, too, how much things have changed — or not. I meticulously filled out all the forms three months ago, and then the long wait began.
Last week, when our reporter who covers Cuba, Nora Gámez Torres called the travel agency where she and one of our photographers had applied for journalism visas, she was told it was not to be. The modus operandi of the Cuban regime has been to approve journalist visas mostly (though there are exceptions) for those who have no ties to Cuba.
As far as my petition for a visa to travel as part of the religious pilgrimage? “La peticion de visa fue denegada.” Denied.
No reason was given, of course.
It’s hard to understand why a one-party state that now allows dissidents like Ladies in White leader Berta Soler or Guillermo “Coco” Fariñas Hernández or journalist Yoani Sánchez or a legion of others to travel the world and head back to their homeland would deny one Cuban-American woman to see her family for a few days. What does the regime fear?
Jose Martí, poet, journalist, and “apostle” of Cuba who fought to free the island from Spain, wrote in the late 19th Century: “El periódico es una espada y su empuñadura la razón”.
Loosely translated: The newspaper is a sword that pierces with reason. That is now el Nuevo Herald’s motto, on our newsroom wall. I pray the pope has the courage, before he leaves Cuba on Tuesday, to proclaim that reason must always be part of our faith, and that those who would deny the most basic of human rights, the freedom to hug a member of one's family, are not the “good neighbors” they proclaim to be.
Myriam Marquez is the Executive Editor of el Nuevo Herald.